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Making my work days more productive


I work full time as a science writer and at any one time I have several projects or tasks on my plate with varying levels of priority. Some, like writing a new article from scratch, take hours and I need to be fully immersed in the task to do my best work. Some tasks come in suddenly and must be done right away, putting everything else on hold. Some tasks aren't difficult but they require coordinating between several people - writing emails, waiting for a response, figuring out a time everyone can meet and then finding an available conference room.

I've always sought efficiency and productivity at work but as a working mom I think about making the most of my work day even more. I don't want to bring home any (or at least very little) stress from work and definitely want to avoid doing actual work at home. I guard the hours when I'm home with my family fiercely and it's important to recharge. I also want to leave work early enough to pick up the boys and be home before six so I want to accomplish as much as I can quickly while maintaining a high level of quality.

Recently my work days have felt especially full and I found that I would be busy with tasks and projects all day but wasn't getting the bigger chunks of time for writing and developing projects. I was starting to think about work projects at home a little too much. My work ebbs and flows and so this is not out of the ordinary but I wondered if I could implement any tactics to help. 

Inspired by Laura Vanderkam's time tracking I decided that it might help me if I track what I work on throughout the day. For the past several months I've been trying to maintain a nearly paperless desk situation and had moved my written to-do lists into Office Outlook Tasks. This has been working fairly well, and I do love deleting an email after creating a task from the subject matter, but I thought that writing some things down during the day would help me.

I spent a lovely post-bedtime hour at Target browsing the office supplies and found a perfect little mint notebook (which I can't seem to find online but it's Cambridge brand) and the next day implemented my time tracking system. Three weeks later and I'm still really happy with it!

Here's what I'm doing:

Each day I start a new two-page spread. This notebook has all the months and days at the top of each page and you can circle the date - I love this. I keep the notebook open and on my desk throughout the day.

On the right-hand side I write the tasks I want to accomplish during the day and track my time. When I arrive at work I look over my main tasks for the day (I try to write them the day before), jot down the time and start on a task. I jot the task I'm working on next to the time. I update the time/task about every 30 minutes but sometimes it will be longer. My objective with time tracking is not to rigorously track each minute of my day but to check in throughout the day and make sure I'm making progress on the things I want to finish. 

I jot notes and non-work related ideas and tasks on left-hand side of the page. During the day I inevitably think of something not related to work that I want to look up, remember to buy, remember to do etc.,  Writing these things down, instead of trying to ignore them, lets me stay focused on my work task but also relax about whatever it is I need to remember.

Before I leave work at the end of the day I write my main tasks or objectives at the top of a new two-page spread. I really like this because I can come into the office and start working on something right away, which sets the tone for my work day. It's easy to open up email first thing and feel productive but not actually make progress on projects. I loved the perspective that someone shared recently at a staff meeting, "Email is always the easiest and worst choice of how to spend your time."

One thing I've noticed is that this system is helping me finish those pesky not-very-difficult tasks that just aren't fun to do like writing a longer email or calling someone to follow up. Seeing the task at the top of the page, just waiting to be highlighted (signifying "complete") motivates me to just do it. 

This system also helps me balance workload. When a request to take care of something, "really quick" comes in I can glance over my tasks and assess the priority level of the new task against what I'm working on. Sometimes it's more effective to finish what I'm working on a put off a new task for a few hours. At other times I do need to break off from my current task, but it's easier to pick up where I left off seeing it written on the page.

This is certainly not a very sophisticated system but often the best solutions are not. I'd love to know what tactics you use to stay productive at work!